DOBSON — Surry Central made one mistake in the first inning, and dug itself into an immediate hole in its first-round 2A state playoff game with Maiden.
It took six innings of championship-caliber baseball on the part of the Golden Eagles to overcome that — barely.
Central finally broke through against Maiden ace pitcher Caden O’Brien in the bottom of the sixth inning, pushing across three runs on three hits to take its first and only lead of the game. Eagle senior Jed Kidd came on in relief of starter Tyler Myers and struck out the side in the top of the seventh to advance his team to the second round.
Surry Central (17-7 overall) will travel to Rutherfordton-Spindale Central for the second round of the playoffs, probably on Saturday afternoon. The Hilltoppers (21-4) are the second overall seed in the 2A West Region and defeated Lexington 7-0 in the first round on Tuesday night. They won the South Mountain Athletic 2A/3A Conference and are the ninth-ranked 2A team in the state according to MaxPreps.com.
However, Central will have the next few days to worry about R-S Central. On Tuesday night, they had their hands full with O’Brien and his Maiden Blue Devils.
In the top of the first, the second Maiden batter of the game reached when Surry Central had a miscommunication and no one covered first base on what should have been a routine ground ball. The play may have rattled Myers, who was one of those involved in the miscue. He walked the next batter, Taylor Tibbs, and then had to face O’Brien, who in addition to bringing an 0.70 ERA into the game, also bats cleanup for the Devils with a .338 average.
He increased it on his first swing, driving a double deep into the right-field corner to drive in both runners and give the visitors a 2-0 lead.
For the rest of the night, Surry Central was the better team. But for most of that time, it didn’t appear that would matter.
Myers struck his way out of the jam, fanning the next two Blue Devil batters. For the rest of the night, he was as dominant as O’Brien, and the next five frames saw zeroes posted on the Maiden half of the scoreboard.
Now Surry Central had to mount a rally against a senior pitcher who hadn’t been beaten all season long. O’Brien, who has already signed to play collegiately at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a perfect 8-0 going into the game, with 94 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 50 1/3 innings.
The Eagles got their first hit off him with one out in the second, when Myers singled up the middle, but the next two batters made outs. In the fourth, Michael Roberts led off with a single to left, but after a groundout, O’Brien struck out Chandler Johnson and Myers.
However, the home team wasn’t giving up. In the third, Blue Devil speedster Ty Williams led off with a single. The next man, J.R. McRee, laid down a perfect bunt between the pitcher and the first-base line. It looked like a sure hit, but Myers dove for the ball, and in the same motion, scooped it to Mason Wood at first to get the out. He walked Tibbs on a close full-count pitch, but then got none other than O’Brien to chase a bad first pitch, and ground into a well-executed double play, Ethan Danley to Ryan Gordon to Wood.
Finally, in the sixth, the Golden Eagles made their move. Troy Jessup turned O’Brien’s first offering of the inning around for a single up the middle. Then Danley swatted cleanly to right, and the tying runs were on base for Roberts.
Surry Central’s senior third baseman was up to the challenge, even if O’Brien was throwing at up to 86 mph. He battled his way to a full count and then smashed a fly ball deep into the left-center gap. Jessup trotted home, with Danley running so hard behind him that they were only 15 feet apart as they approached the plate. The former scored easily, and the throw home was too short and too late to get Danley, either.
A passed ball moved Roberts to third base just before O’Brien hit Kidd with a pitch. He struck out the next batter, but he didn’t strike out Myers. He did just what he needed to do, lifting a deep fly ball to center field that had Roberts tagging and heading home as soon as it sank into the outfielder’s glove.
The Golden Eagles, the only 2A team to beat Forbush this season, were three outs away from being the only team all season to beat O’Brien.
Coach Seth Reece gave Kidd the assignment of getting those three outs.
He fell behind 3-1 to leadoff hitter Dylan Landis, then threw two strikes by him. Then he cut down the next man as well, and of course O’Brien was the final challenge. He went down swinging on a 2-2 pitch, and Surry Central was a playoff winner for the first time since 2014.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.